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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: September 4, 2010

John Wilcock

YEAR AFTER YEAR, the most attractive magazine to be found is not a magazine at all but the super-sized Taschen book catalog, a giant folio of eye-catching pictures and irresistible text about everything from Michelangelo’s life and works to Japanese cinema, from prefab houses to wearable artifacts. Normally, if you’re on a modest budget, you might wince at the elevated prices of these volumes ($1000 for a Christo and Jeanne-Claude retrospective, $2000 for Dennis Hopper’s 1960 photographs) but the images shown are so huge, so memorable and so abundant, that just owning the catalog (free) is like having a  mini art collection.

Benedikt Taschen
with Hugh Hefner

“For 30 years now, this prolific company has been publishing what it darned well wants to. High art, low art, respectable or rude: it’s all good business to Taschen,” raved Tony Barrell in the Sunday Times.

“Benedikt Taschen is an anachronistic freak in the modern world of books: an autocrat, a tycoon, a highly visible figurehead whose surname appears in capital letters on the billions of volumes that Taschen churns out. He’s Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner with a dash of Citizen Kane.”

“Gleefully adventurous” was one description of the company’s philosophy and that could describe The Big Butt Book (“a cornucopia of delectable derrieres”) followed by The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of Legs and The Penis Book. But, at the other extreme, it could also describe a collection of typefaces, fonts, graphic styles, The Elements of Euclid which explains basic geography, Bombay Billboards or
Wearable Artifacts.

What followed were some remarkably adventurous books about sex capped by an explicit examination of the philosophy and physique of the famous porn star Vanessa del Rio. It proved to be very popular.

‘We never start with a huge print run,’ Benedikt says. ‘We reprint. If you don’t reprint a book, it is not a success, but neither is it a big failure, so you don’t have a problem”.

—from Ellen von Unwerth’s Fraulein whose photography “revels in sexual intrigue, femininity, romance, fetishism, kitsch humor, decadence, and sheer joie de vivre

EVERYBODY in the world of art and design, of course, has been familiar with Benedikt Taschen for eons — about how as a child he liked to paint vampires and by the age of 12 was selling comic books by mail order. How the fledgling publisher got into art books in 1984. borrowing money to buy 40,000 copies of a remaindered Magritte book.

From an early age he described his hometown, Cologne, as “a world full of artists and free-minded spirits — a world I wanted to be part of.” It still harbors the Taschen hq but today the company has branches in London, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, New York. and Beverly Hills.

It is the Taschen fascination with the subject of architecture that has cemented (no pun intended) its serious reputation. Books such as the land art of Tadao Ando (winner of all four top architecture prizes); Shigeru Ban, “the paper architect,” and three volumes about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.

By his 40th birthday in 2001, the Observer summarized: “Buildings and breasts have made him rich.” And there are always new fans ready to gape at the company’s incredible range of styles and subjects. He “shows an uncanny instinct for understanding what the gentrified radical wanted,” the Observer wrote.

Taschen’s 30th anniversary issue leaps through the ages from A Chronicle of the Crusades through 19th century Tokyo, 20th Century travel ads ands 21st century fashions.  There’s even a simple day-to-day diary designed to teach the writer about himself or herself.

EVERY GREAT CAUSE begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket,” philosophied Eric Hoffer who maintained in The True Believer that movements are interchangeable and that fanatics will often flip from one movement to another. The motivations for mass movements he said, are interchangeable: religious, nationalist, and class-based movements tend to behave in the same way and use the same tactics, even when their stated goals or values are diametrically opposed.

IN SOMEWHAT UNSPECIFIC terms, political scientist Gene Sharp, 82, purveys advice on non-violent resistance in the current Utne Reader pointing out that objectives such as social justice or complete peace are usually impractical. “You have to think in smaller bites. Work out a plan that will weaken your opponent but also strengthen your people and give them the capacity to carry on the struggle,” he says. Author of writings on non-violent strategies that have been translated into 40 languages — and condemned by the current dictators of Iran — Sharp says: “Nobody talks about the weaknesses of dictatorships but they sure as hell have them. All power has its sources and if you can identify the sources you can cut them off.”

BEFORE INSULTS degenerated into four-letter words, some people used language with more verve. This collection from my friend Janet:

He has no enemies but he is intensely disliked by his friends. Oscar Wilde

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork. — Mae West

Thank you for sending me your book. I’ll waste no time reading it. — Moses Hadas

I have just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial. Irvin S. Cobb

I didn’t attend the funeral. but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it. — Mark Twain

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. — Clarence Darrow

I feel so miserable without you, it’s almost like having you here. — Stephen Bishop


THE WILCOCK WEB: A bowl of food behind a fence, totally frustrated dogs, who pawed the ground and howled, report Australian researchers. Wolves and dingoes just ran to the break in the fence further down…. Fifteen years after banishing alcohol from its 7,500 stores, Walgreen has re-introduced beer and wine to almost half of them…For millions of people, marihuana is the (forever) next-to-last stop before suicide…. DEFT DEFINITION: Shotgun wedding:  a case of wife or death….Researchers detected high levels of E.coli bacteria in re-used plastic grocery bags. They recommend shoppers to wash them out…Amsterdam’s mayor is sending out “decoy Jews” — policemen wearing skull caps — after a rabbi was assaulted in the city’s Moroccan quarter….Indonesia’s biggest movie company, Multivision Plus, has cast Hasan Faruq Ali, a 12-year-old karate student, to play the young Barack Obama in a new movie….Researchers in Montreal and London are working on the idea of a custom-wired shirt whose bio-sensors will react to its wearer’s moods, responding with reassuring audio messages….“The only way to avoid mistakes,” said Albert Einstein, “is to have no new ideas”….Books by Stephenie Meyer and Ann Coulter occupy eight of the top eleven in Goodread’s The Worst Books of All Time ….. Uncompliment: He had delusions of adequacy.” — Walter Kerr….The Army’s favorite sniper rife, the M-24, will be fitted with a suppressor that distorts the telltale sound which allow the enemy to locate it….True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” — Socrates (469BC-399BC)

{John Wilcock is currently visiting Texas;
he will be back in time for a book party
at the Ojai House next week. }